Decision Making

What To Do About The Weather!

Bad Weather - Risk Management

As I lay back snuggled in my sleeping bag, the constant pitter patter of rain hits and splashes noisily away on my tent. We've just canoed all day on Lake Yarrunga with our Year 9 boys. Half of this was in the rain, the other half on calm glassy water.

Dinner and our debrief tonight switched between sitting around the campfire and huddling under the tarp as the rain swept in and out! The boys were all in bed by 8pm, so no complaints on my part.

I'd known about the rain for days, so this was neither a surprise, nor a concern. I've gone out in far better conditions and far, far worse! But where do you draw the line? For many excursions, weather isn't the most important factor, as you could be visiting a museum, gallery or other indoor venue and not need worry too much about what's happening outside. However, it's well worth developing the habit of checking weather conditions before any and every trip away to ensure you have the whole operational picture in your mind and be able to adapt or react if unfavourable conditions are forecast. It’s far better to change plans in anticipation of problems, rather than actually having to deal with the problems that result from a bad decision.

You Know You're Going To Get Wet...

You Know You're Going To Get Wet...

So back to my iPhone illuminated tent and the now silent campsite. I'd known since last week the forecast was for rain and it would be a factor in our decision making process. We'd discussed the issue with the team and had devised a clear contingency plan depending on severity. Lots of rain and operating on rivers and lakes with huge catchment areas is always a concern at the back of my mind. I never want to be caught by a rising river nor have to execute a late night evac from a campsite (super dangerous). I’m more the relaxing by a warm fire reading a book type of guy, rather than the Oh Crap! We made a bad decision by staying type of guy! I’d rather err on the side of caution, than be stuck with the consequences and being proactive about the weather is one way of doing this.

Studying the forecasts as they were updated each day, the concern remained that we were going to get wet, but it wasn't going to be that wet, so we decided that we were still heading out. Now I'll just pause to reflect here for a sec. I've also been in the situation where the weather was checked, discussed and I thought it wasn't safe to proceed, yet I was told by my then boss I had to go out! The result was pretty bad, like really bad... but that's a whole other story in itself and one I will come back to another time.

It might seem simple enough and should go without saying, but often it’s overlooked and being able to make an informed decision through checking what the weather is doing is an important part of any school's risk management strategy on all excursions. It can help you better prepare contingencies for adverse conditions or help you pack the right clothing and equipment. The last thing you want when organising your excursion is to be surprised by a sudden storm, a heat wave or strong winds that could put you and your students at risk. It literally takes two minutes to check the weather and can save you hours or months of trauma by doing so. This is not to say that you should only be a fair weather field tripper. That’s not the point at all! Having kids feel uncomfortable in the elements can be a great learning experience. Some of my best trips have been in bad weather, but the difference was that it was never dangerous weather that put them at risk of harm. If we only ever went out when it was clear blue sky, then we'd never do half the activities and the kids would be poorer for the lack of experience. I’ll address different approaches I’ve taken in more detail in some later posts and examine the consequences of some poor decision making on other school trips, when a check of the weather could have prevented injuries and serious consequences.

Anyway, despite being uncomfortable today, it proved to be a great learning experience for the boys, canoeing, setting up and cooking in the rain. For some looking after their personal equipment has never been more important. For me, my feet are still drying at the base of my sleeping bag and I know my tent will be soaked in the morning, but I’m snug and warm, all the kids are sleeping soundly and I’m about to drift off myself… It’s been a good day!


Ski Rescue - First Aid


In first aid training, it should be drilled into students more and more that Danger is the No. 1 consideration for First Aiders. It's often mentioned, but the massive importance of the issue is not always effectively addressed. Personal safety and personal protective equipment should be dominant factors in your decision-making process of, ‘To help or not to help!’ The tough reality is that if you're going to be at risk, then you always have the choice not to involve yourself. It's a hard decision, especially when you're trained and have a desire to help others, but sometimes it's the only choice possible if you’re going to end up in danger yourself.

One situation I found myself in where the danger to me proved far too great, was when I was in Colorado, in the US. I was skiing at Breckenridge, and coming down a home trail that links two of the peaks together, when a movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. I skidded to a stop. Glancing back I saw two figures scrambling desperately to get out of a creek bed next to the trail.

Safety Hazard Signage

The first one popped up onto the side of the track. ‘Are you ok?’ I asked, seeing that he was a snowboarder.
‘Yeah, I'm fine,’ he panted.
He seemed distracted, turned back and scrambled towards the creek. I skated up and took a closer look. I could see his friend half way up the snow covered embankment, his head covered in blood.

‘Oh…’ I thought, suddenly switching modes and quickly assessing the area, the people and everything around me.
The guy who'd climbed out first was now becoming increasingly distressed.
I looked directly at him and calmly said, ‘Would you like me to call ski patrol?’
‘Oh yeah man… yeah… I need to get him out!’ he replied sounding confused and now appearing disorientated.

That was about the best indication I could get that this guy wanted help, so I called ski patrol and gave them a quick description of the situation and my location. At this point however, I’d only just seen the scrambling up, some blood and heard a bit of noise. I didn't quite understand the full extent of the injuries or anything like that.

As I got off the phone, I could see the second snowboarder grab the edge of the track and push himself up. I clicked out of my skis and stepped forward. Staggered to his feet, the snowboarder stumbled toward me. Taking one look, I stepped back. Blood was pouring down his face like a bubbling brook.

Taking another defensive half-step back I said, ‘My name’s David, I’ve called ski patrol and they're on their way.’
I got a mumbled somewhat confused response that at some point included an acknowledgement.

This whole time, I was still assessing the scene and evaluating the injured snowboarder. I'd determined the scene was safe. Given the mechanism of injury appeared to be snowboarding into a creek without a helmet, I wasn't that concerned about that happening to me. The next danger was that the snowboarder was now standing in the middle of a ski run and other skiers and snowboarders were riding past at speed. To manage this danger, after I took my skis off, I’d crossed them up hill from our location, so I was happy with the fact that I wasn't going to get hit where I was standing.

Next I moved to the human factor in my ongoing Danger assessment. I’d already determined that there was significant personal risk involved in providing First Aid. There was blood everywhere, I didn't know the person, he appeared to be under the influence of drugs and I had no personal protective equipment (gloves). This was too much danger for my liking and there was no way I was going to put myself at risk of a blood borne infection through providing assistance in this situation. At the same time, I also decided that I wasn't going to just walk away. I was going to be entirely ‘hands off’ as the casualty was at least able to do things for himself and help was on its way.

From a safe distance, I provided clear instructions to him and his friend, who was still wandering around in a panic. ‘Okay, ski patrol isn't far away,’ I said again to reassure the casualty. ‘What I suggest you do whilst you wait is just sit down on the side of the track and with your glove, press down on your head.’ I pointed to where I wanted him to sit, out of the way of others and demonstrated with my hand on my head to show him what I wanted him to do.

The blood kept streaming down the snowboarder’s face unabated, but there was little else I could or would do in this situation. He sat down and at least put some pressure on his wound. For at least 2 minutes, he was sitting there doing what I'd suggested he do.

This is where it became weird. His friend is still walking about in a panic and I was trying my best to calm him and reassure him. Then the casualty starts reacting to his idiot friend’s panic. ‘I've gotta get outta here man!’ he said.
‘Oh no,’ I thought. ‘Here we go!’

Now dealing with profusely bleeding drug tripping snowboarders isn't my idea of a good day on the snow, but I still had to try my best until I could hand this bloody mess over to ski patrol.
‘It's okay,’ I said again, ‘ski patrol is on its way. Just stay where you are, keep pressure on your head and you’ll be taken care of shortly.’
‘Nah, man I gotta go!’ he said, taking his hand off the head wound. Suddenly more blood streamed from his head as the pressure released. He proceeded to strap on his snowboard.

I tried reasoning with him some more, and when that didn't work, I tried reasoning with his friend. Not an easy thing to do with stoners! Dave definitely wasn't their man!

No matter what I tried, the guy was determined to go, so I certainly wasn't going to try and stop him. He skated off woosily, his friend chasing after him yelling, ‘You gotta see a doctor man!’

I quickly got back on the phone to ski patrol and explained the situation. ‘Do you know where he’s going?’ they asked.
‘No, sorry I don't know, but there's a pretty clear trail of blood leaving my location. Follow that and you're bound to find him.’

With that, it was the end of my involvement. Even though I provided some level of assistance, I remained completely hands off to protect myself from the clear and present danger. Having come across an injured person, I’d fulfilled my obligations under the skier’s code of responsibility, by stopping and calling ski patrol. However, in my assessment of the scene, the injury and the person involved, I’d decided very quickly during my initial danger assessment, I wasn't going to offer or provide first aid.

This can be a hard decision, as you're trained to help others in need. However, I've seen people rush in to situations and end up finding themselves covered with a stranger’s blood, which, even if you've only got a paper cut on your finger, could mean an infection. The last time I saw this happen, the person was a first responder to a car accident. He rushed in with another, started treating a casualty, no gloves, no danger assessment done at all. The irony was that there was a well-stocked First Aid kit with plenty of gloves in the back of the responder’s vehicle. If they had taken 60 sec to calm themselves, checked for dangers and put gloves on whilst they assessed the scene and its surrounds, they wouldn't have needed to go through the stress of a number of blood tests for infectious diseases. I can't stress enough DON’T DO THIS! If you're the first responder, your No. 1 priority is always to CHECK FOR DANGER! At the end of the day, you can't afford to put yourself at risk of harm and become the second casualty of the incident.

The Art Of Teaching Through Doing Nothing

Outdoor Activity - Outdoor Education

As teachers, there's always the desire to go out of your way to help students with their learning. However, what if this is harming their ability in the whole learning process? The increasing lack of ability for kids to problem solve is concerning on many levels. The standard solution of google, it has helped reduce people's ability to think and respond! ‘eLearning’ has a lot to answer for in terms of building incompetence into kids, where they're encouraged to seek solutions to their problems from the Internet. Instant access to the answer to almost everything has created new problems in that kids who are reliant on instant results, can't cope in situations that require a more complex and challenging approach.

Recently, I had a group of students out on a hike into the Budawang Wilderness. This pristine and amazingly rugged part of Morton National Park is a challenging, yet invigorating experience. Prior to the trip, we set the scene for the students. It was their expedition and they were in charge. We would only intervene if there were a safety issue that arose, otherwise every decision was up to them. They were briefed on directions, leadership and group management and given a map and compass.

Moments after the end of the brief, the questions started flying “How far is it?”
“When’s lunch?”
“What time are we going to get there?”
We both gave the same response. “You've been given all the information you need. Work it out yourself!”

It quickly became obvious that none of them had ever experienced this before. They were expecting to be taken on a trip, rather than being challenged by the experience. The temptation of teachers (often born out of frustration) is to take over and do it for them, or show them, as it's an easy way out. Yet if you do that, you never put the kids outside their comfort zone. You never push them to take any initiative or responsibility and they never actually learn anything.

So we waited for them to work it out, which took some time, then we were off and along the track. The questions about how far we'd gone, how long left and can I eat this muesli bar, continued and were met every time with the same response, “It's your trip. Work it out yourself.”

Whilst the questions are annoying, once they realise you're not going to provide them with any answers, they eventually stop asking, until they want reassurance that they're on the right path, or they're tired and then like flies to a dead horse, they ask again and again and again, which I refuse to answer unless there is a safety issue.

We eventually made it to camp, probably two hours later than if one of us had been ‘running’ the trip, but what educational value would that have provided? If we just ‘ran’ trips, we would just reinforce the notion that everything can and will be answered and done instantly with no effort on the part of the student. From an educational point of view, this is a complete waste of time and allows for no development of resilience nor initiative in kids, which ultimately will cost them dearly when faced with any sort of challenge later in life.

When leading trips, this has always been my guiding principle. Set the group up once and let them work the rest out for themselves. They must do everything out there in the field for themselves. What time we start, what time we break, pace of the group, setting up camp, dinner time, wake up, pack up, departure and navigation. Everything about the trip needs to be put on the students to think about and take appropriate action to complete.

At the end of the day, you never learn to drive sitting in the passenger seat, so set the group up, then put the responsibility on the group to take ownership and run the trip themselves. It might be tough. They might winged and complain about it, but it lets them develop real problem solving skills and teaches them some valuable lessons that they will never learn anywhere else.

Next time you're out with a group, don't take charge and do everything for them. Brief the group, then sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

A Teachable Moment

The Rocks In Question - Risk Management

Recently, I was on an expedition along the spectacular south coast of New South Wales. Despite having a group of Year 9 boys with me, it was a spectacular trip! The expedition itself was a journey of around 30 km from Dolphin Point in the North, to North Durras in the South. Rather ironic that the most southerly point is called North, but of course everything is North of something, unless you’re at the South Pole.
Given the fact that the group of 18 boys on the expedition had been trained in all the requisite skills beforehand, I framed my briefing so they were running the expedition, not me. Consequently, the boys get the opportunity to explore, take on challenges and make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t.
From a staffing point of view, the other teacher and I were there purely as the ‘safety blanket’ just in case a poor decision were to be made in the dangerous risk category. This means, we only ever would intervene if there’s a serious safety risk. If they walk in the wrong direction for an hour, I don’t care, because it’s not a dangerous risk. If they’re thinking about crossing a flooded river filled with snakes and piranhas, then this is my moment to facilitate a discussion on risk. At the end of the day, however, the students are running the trip and I encourage them to do everything possible themselves without the intervention of staff.
At no point with high school students do I want to be working on the premise that I’m ‘taking’ them out on a trip. Anybody can take a group of students out, blindly lead them around the bush and call it a hike. However, from an educational point of view, this doesn’t make any sense because there are no real learning opportunities that are created from this when you drag students around as if you’re the Pied Piper. Sure, you might wander around the wilderness for a couple of days, see some sights and ‘rough it’ a little. The students might feel a bit uncomfortable being out camping, but ultimately that's about it. There's not much actual learning involved in this scenario.
So for starters, avoid ‘taking’ students on a trip. Their parents can take them on a trip. Any sort of teacher can ‘take’ them on a trip. But as an experiential educator you must let them take you and lead you on the trip. For some teachers, this is way too hard and they don’t want to give up control. I saw an embarrassing example of this in my favourite café in Berry one day. The guy in front of me ordered a coffee, but then instead of letting the barista make it, the man wanted to pour his own milk in. The owner just stared at him and said, “why did you come out for coffee if you want to make it yourself?” Sometimes you really just need to let go!
Anyway, back to the coastal expedition and two different approaches to the same issue. We’d had really high seas for the past week and this raised a few red flags in terms of our risk management and our assessments of the locations. However, there wasn’t anything significant enough to mean we had to cancel or redesign the trip.
Day 1, we hiked along 7 kilometres of beach before reaching a headland that jutted out into the sea. Approaching this point, I positioned myself towards the front of the group, knowing the headland was one of those potentially dangerous points on the expedition that required active supervision.
Since I’d already put all the decision-making responsibilities onto the students, I didn't move into this position to take over. Instead, I put myself there acting in my role as ‘safety manager,’ to facilitate a discussion about the location and the hazard. I wasn't going to suddenly jump in and say, ‘Right, I’m in control now! Follow Me!’ If I did this, it would defeat the whole purpose of what we’re trying to achieve. Why? Because I can’t tell my students one thing and then do the complete opposite whenever I feel like it. Students quickly see through people who aren't authentic and honest, so if you decide to jump in randomly here and there whenever it suits you, good luck building trust after that! It remained up to my students to make an informed assessment and determine for themselves how they should proceed once they have all the information.
I need to be very clear at this point. I’m not going to put the students in any danger if they make a poor decision. I’ll use this opportunity to further expand on actions and consequences and keep working on it until they make a sounder decision.
At this point of the headland, there are two ways around. There’s one path up to the right, as we were traveling south and are on the East Coast of Australia, which goes up and over the headland via a bush track. To the left is the ocean and directly in front of us, are the rocky platforms that step up and down to make up the headland.
I’d stopped at a vantage point a few metres above sea level at the point where we could go no further. From here I could see around to the beach on the other side of the headland. The swell was powerful and as I watched, I could see multiple sets of waves lining up before crashing on the platform below.
To this point, the boys hadn’t been paying much attention to what was going on around them. They’d been hiking for almost 2 hours. They’d been walking and talking and everything had been easy going. The simple act of walking along a beach isn’t particularly hard so it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.
Gathering the boys together on the rocky platform I said, “Ok, this is one of the points that you need to carefully assess and make a decision on. We have a couple of options available to us.” One of the boys immediately said, “Let’s just go straight ahead!”
I looked at him and he was one of those passenger students. We always have a lot of passengers and they’re the ones who just want to be taken on a trip. They’re used to be taken everywhere and having everything done for them. It’s people such as him, that demand instant results from no effort, and they’re the ones who tend to make dangerous ill-informed decisions.
For such as this student, if I hadn’t put myself in that specific location to facilitate a discussion about risk, they would’ve kept walking down onto the next rock shelf that was awash with the bright white foam of the waves, not noticed the approaching swell and got themselves smashed down by the crashing wave before being swept off the rocks as it withdrew back out to sea. Now they’ve just turned a nice walk on the beach into a coronial inquest. The faster you can identify this type of student the better, because all they see is the reward in a fast solution and perceive no risk or no danger as part of this.
I said to the boys, “Wait a minute. Before you make a decision on this, let’s run through the options that are available to us.” I outlined the bush track over the headland versus continuing around the headland. Whilst on the one hand, they were listening to me, more importantly, they were standing watching what the ocean swell was doing. It was only another 30 seconds and I got the result I wanted. The swell surged up and a massive set of three waves, one after the other pounded the rocks below us and a fine ocean spray mist covered us from head to toe.
Suddenly the boys’ attitude changed. “We don’t want to go down there!” one said.
“Ok, explain to me why you don’t you want to go down there.”
“Well look at it!” he said, “the waves keep crashing onto the rocks and if you’re down there, there’s nowhere else to go!”
The passenger from before, who wanted to proceed because he thought it would be easier then said, “We’ll be fine, let’s just time it and run across!”
The next wave smashed onto the platform, quickly followed by another, covering the entire rock shelf.
“Ok, so we have 20 people to get across, how exactly are we going to time it without getting hit by one of those waves?” The boy went silent. He didn’t have an answer as more and more waves crashed powerfully onto the rocks. As it was an incoming tide, it was only going to get worse.
I knew very clearly in my mind what decision needed to be made. However, it was still extremely important to let the boys have a discussion amongst themselves and make the decision. They’d been given all the information they required and were standing looking directly at the dangerous environmental conditions themselves. However, I wasn’t going to pre-empt what they were going to do and therefore save them from making a decision. This was an important teachable moment and they had to make the decision for themselves.
After a few more minutes of discussion and observation, the boys finally made their decision. “We’re going to go around, Sir!” said one them.
“Ok, good let’s make it happen,” I replied.
Without making a big deal about it, we backtracked a couple of hundred metres and went up and over the headland via the bush track. Before long, we were back on the beach continuing our journey.
Alternatively, when we got to that point I could’ve stopped everyone and said, “It’s too dangerous we can’t do this!” and led them around the track myself. However, what would’ve been the point of that? I would’ve wasted a really-important learning opportunity. I would’ve wasted the opportunity to let the boys see what a dangerous situation looks and feels like and wasted the opportunity to let them make an informed decision for themselves.
Whilst you can’t plan situations like this and I’d never take students into dangerous situations just for the sake of it, if they arise, use these opportunities as great teachable moments. Don’t just jump in and take control. Instead, see them for what they are, as extremely important learning opportunities for students. If facilitated in the right way, they can empower your student to make well-informed decisions for themselves, not just as a ‘one off’. This gives them the opportunity to grow as they learn to understand and experience the difference between a dangerous risk and a perceived risk.
Since the boys had made the decision on this occasion to go around, for the rest of the trip, every other headland we came to, the boys ran through this decision making process and either deemed it was safe to continue, or found an alternate route. I didn’t have to prompt their thinking or intervene at all.
In our debrief that evening, we again talked about taking risks. Whilst we’d already dealt with decision making in regards to dangerous risks earlier in the day, that night was a discussion about taking other risks. For example, the risk of trying something new, the risk of going outside our comfort zones, the risk of confronting a fear.
Contrasting the potentially dangerous risk the boys had to deal with that day with their own individual perceived risks, was a great way to conclude the day and reinforce the learning from that teachable moment. During this debrief, I experienced one of the most interesting and insightful discussions I’ve ever had with a group, all because we’d been able to seize that moment earlier in the day and use it to get the students really thinking.
So whenever you’re presented with a situation like this, embrace it, facilitate the discussion and use this to your advantage to help teach your students valuable lessons they’ll never otherwise learn, nor understand, unless they’ve actually experienced it for themselves.